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Systematic Theology by Robert Letham: A Review Article

John R. Muether

Systematic Theology, by Robert Letham. Wheaton: Crossway, 2019, 1072 pages, $50.00.

Another oversized systematic theology by a Reformed author? Aren’t there too many already weighing down our bookshelves? Consider what has appeared in this millennium alone: Herman Bavinck (translated into English, 2003–2008), Joel Beeke (2019), John Frame (2013), Michael Horton (2011), and Douglas Kelly (2008). In joining this crowded field, Robert Letham, Professor at Union School of Theology in Wales (and a minister at Emmanuel OPC in Wilmington, Delaware from 1989 to 2006), anticipates this concern in his introduction. The rapid publication of systematic theologies today, he explains, is still not equal to the pace after the Reformation, when “they were coming off the press almost as quickly as one could say ‘Martin Luther’” (38).

If you are still harboring skepticism about the value of this book, I understand, because I had similar reservations. But it would be misguided to dismiss this book as redundant. Letham approaches the topic in thirty-one chapters that fall under eight major sections: “the Triune God,” “The Word of God,” “The Works of God,” “The Image of God,” “The Covenant of God,” “Christ, the Son of God,” “The Spirit of God and the People of God,” and finally, “The Ultimate Purposes of God.” The very arrangement of the subjects suggests a distinguishing characteristic of this work. Unlike the recent authors he joins, Letham has a different starting point. Because “God precedes his revelation” (36), Letham puts the doctrine of God before the doctrine of Scripture. Moreover, he discusses the Trinity before he examines God’s attributes. Here he follows through on a concern he expressed in an earlier book on the Westminster Confession’s treatment of God in its second chapter: when the Westminster divines delay reference to the Trinity until article three, “the distinctly Christian doctrine of God is almost an afterthought.”[1] Leading the chapter with the Trinity would have made the Confession more effective in confronting Islam, he suggested.[2] It is also fitting for Letham to take that approach in light of contemporary evangelical confusion about trinitarian relationships.

Letham shapes his discussion by categories suggested by Oliver Crisp, who distinguished between the creeds and confessions of the church on the one hand (two sets of norma normata or “ruled rules”) and “theologoumena” on the other hand, which are theological opinions that are not binding upon the church (34–35). Among the doctrines he categorizes as theologoumena are the pactum salutis (433) and common grace (650). In an appendix he commends the Orthodox Presbyterian Church’s 2004 “Report of the Committee to Study the Views of Creation” as a “comprehensive and even-handed discussion” (912n7) that observes the distinction between confession and opinion.

His fluency with the ecumenical creeds and Reformed Confessions is evident throughout, and he cites the Council of Trent and the Catechism of the Catholic Church as well. He is also familiar with Calvin, Augustine, Barth, Bavinck, and Aquinas (in that order, the names most cited), and scores of others, especially Reformed and post-Reformation voices. Letham’s expertise extends even further to the theology of Eastern Orthodoxy, also the subject of a previous study.[3] In chapter 11 he introduces the Eastern doctrine of theōsis in his discussion on “Humanity in Creation.” The uniqueness of humanity in the image of God, beyond our commonality with other creatures, entails our compatibility with God. This compatibility prompted the incarnation and eventually leads to our glorification (which Letham sees as synonymous with deification or theōsis, 337). In “The Progress of the Christian Life” (chapter 26) he returns to theōsis as it relates to union with Christ. The chapter’s conclusion, “nine thesis on theōsis,” carefully frames the doctrine within the bounds of Reformed confessionalism (785–88).

Letham ventures into plenty of modern topics. He expresses skepticism about the current interest in Second Temple Judaism, that is, developments in the intertestamental period. He finds the term itself “about as useful as twentieth century evangelicalism,” explaining: “Get two or three Americans together from various times within the previous century and there will doubtless be at least four or five opinions” (705). His point is that the not-so-New Perspective on Paul’s assumption of the apostle’s reliance on a “normative Judaism” in this period forms a flimsy basis for its ambitious claims.

In a brief discussion on the prospect of extra-terrestrial intelligent life in a universe of billions of galaxies, Letham assures readers that this is no challenge to our faith. He reminds us that Christianity has always believed in such life, calling them angels (289). He respects the restraint of Scripture on the matter, concluding “that eternity will be filled with praise and obedient faithfulness from throughout the animate and intelligent cosmos” (289).

Angels also appear in his discussion of miracles a few pages later. Letham takes the traditional approach on this subject: because redemption is accomplished, “God has spoken his final word. There is nothing more he can say. He has said it all.” Thus, “signs and wonders are theologically superfluous” (305). Yet he cautions that the Reformed cessationists must avoid a functional deism by accounting for the ministry of angels. Operating behind the scenes, “some extraordinary accounts of protection from danger or of deliverance in times of need defy normal explanation” (305).

A theme that predominates throughout the book is the connectivity of doctrine. In the context of a discussion on the incarnation Letham observes:

Christian theology is interrelated. New developments in one area inevitably impinge on others. If you enter a room, by opening the door, you set in motion new wind currents. Objects on the other side of the room will be disturbed or displaced by the draft. If windows are open, curtains will billow, and your favorite lamp may come crashing to the floor and smash to smithereens without your laying so much as a finger on it. (532–33)

The point is to challenge the claim that Christ’s incarnation assumed a fallen human nature, which in Letham’s judgment threatens the gospel itself. 

A particular concern for Letham is to integrate soteriology with ecclesiology. “The doctrine of salvation,” he regrets,

has long been treated in isolation from the doctrine of the church. . . . In reality they stand together, since outside the church “there is no ordinary possibility of salvation” (WCF 25.2). We are saved not merely as discrete individuals but as the one church of Jesus Christ. Consequently, I have long thought that the two should be treated together. (36–37)

This comes specially to bear in chapter 20:

In the New Testament, salvation in Christ is connected inextricably to the community of the church, in parallel with the solidarity of the race in sin in Adam. . . . The New Testament letters, for the most part, were addressed to churches rather than individuals, to be read to the assembled congregation. Individuals are addressed within these letters but in this churchly context. In Ephesians, Paul writes to the church and then talks to groups within it. In Romans, within the church, Paul focuses on both Jewish and Gentile elements. This corporate dimension is of immense significance. Without it we will not understand baptism or come to grips with the New Testament understanding of salvation. “In Christ” is a dominant theme throughout and it is located and expressed in the church. (620)

Enlightenment individualism, he explains, has severed salvation from the church, which notably finds expression in evangelicalism’s relegation of the Lord’s Supper as an “optional extra” (752) where the memorialist interpretation predominates (762).

The reader will encounter few surprises in the views Letham advances. He approaches with caution those topics where Scripture is not clear. One example is on the precise frequency of communion. While the church has liberty in this matter, he regrets the Presbyterian reputation for infrequency. “The degree to which the church desires communion is a reliable gauge of how eagerly it wants Christ. The key word is ‘often.’ The question to ask is, how far do we desire communion with Christ?” (767).

Similarly, Letham is careful in discussing the “sleep” that characterizes the soul of the believer in the intermediate state. While he questions how characterizing that state as unconsciousness can be harmonized with biblical teaching, he presses his case with gentle humor: “As for me, I am in no rush to find out whether this is so; besides, once I do find out, I will be unable to inform you. It is more than sufficient to know that we will be ‘with Christ’” (830).

On the ordo salutis and union with Christ, Letham offers a clarifying perspective on recent discussions. The two are complementary and do not compete against each other, and thus order and priority among the benefits of Christ must be maintained. One of his conclusions bears pondering: in describing the ordo “it is debatable whether we are to follow slavishly the same pattern as Paul did. He was not the only biblical author” (616).

Letham devotes attention to the primacy of the Word. Lying at the heart of covenant theology, this should yield among Reformed Christians a confidence in the Word (626) with especially high expectations from the preached Word (634). Here again, Letham does not strike new ground, but his argument is particularly forceful. At the same time, he reminds the reader that matter can communicate God’s grace, through the visible signs of his appointment (639), which leads into his discussion of the sacraments.

Every systematic theology has its idiosyncrasies, and Letham’s is no exception. But it is refreshingly devoid of American obsessions. In his illustrations we learn a few things about cricket (297, 869) and the Elizabethan rose (302). Among the many pastoral asides in the text, there is a touching anecdote about the death of his ninety-year-old father, who found assurance in Christ amid weakness of faith (677).

This is an Orthodox Presbyterian systematic theology—though not in a sectarian sense. Letham interacts extensively with many colleagues in his former denomination. On one page I counted engagement with three OPC voices, and his survey of the literature of the Reformed landscape extends to the pages of New Horizons and Ordained Servant. Letham’s Systematic Theology is Reformed, catholic, and confessional, and not beset by the burden to be creative. OPC officers may wish to spare themselves the expense and the shelf space for yet another thick systematic theology. But they would be depriving themselves of an edifying read and a helpful resource.

Endnotes

[1]The Westminster Assembly: Reading Its Theology in Historical Perspective (Philipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2009), 146.

[2] Ibid., 147.

[3] Robert Letham, Through Western Eyes: Eastern Orthodoxy: A Reformed Perspective (Fearn, Ross-shire: Mentor, 2007).

John R. Muether serves as a ruling elder at Reformation Orthodox Presbyterian Church, Oviedo, Florida, library director at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, Florida, and historian of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. Ordained Servant Online, August–September 2020.

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